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Leading by Example; NCOs are the Vital Ground

This article is the first in a two part study of the current state of leadership within the British Army and how this contributes to generating and sustaining the Army’s Fighting Power. This first paper is focused on Senior and Junior NCOs as leadership role models, given their key part in maintaining the strategic edge over our adversaries at a tactical level. The second part will focus on the officer corps, be it both Late and Direct Entry

The British Army is under sustained attack. So severe is this attack that it threatens to diminish Fighting Power to such an extent as to render the Army militarily impotent. But it may surprise you to read that this impotence is not about shrinking or stagnant equipment budgets, nor about capabilities long since obsolete. This attack is not, furthermore, from a state or non-state adversary who is seeking to bring about our demise. This particular attack is so serious, so threatening to the long term survivability of the British Army because it is the most severe example of self-harm to occur in a generation. The potential for irreversible damage is so grievous that no amount of additional funding will provide a solution. This attack is from the Army’s own soldiers.

Let me begin with some context: an example that will serve to illustrate the threat. It’s late November 2017; a large Divisional exercise is drawing to a close at Warminster, much to the relief of those exposed to the sub-zero temperatures over the preceding 3 weeks or so. A field officer, laden like a packhorse, is walking slowly under the weight of a bergan, grip bag and daysack towards his transport. Its 0700, so still dark as he shuffles past the tented cookhouse and up a narrow track towards the waiting vehicle. His younger, sprightlier signaller (a private soldier) is some 5 metres ahead, striding up the incline under a similar weight, but no less burdened by it. As the field officer raises his weary head to search in hope for the vehicle in question, he spots two soldiers walking towards his signaller, two abreast on the narrow track that is hand-railing the perimeter fence. As these soldiers pass the signaller, he is sent sprawling onto the ground running adjacent to the track, the victim of a shoulder barge from the larger of the two soldiers, unwilling to acquiesce in sharing the path with other users. The soldier is quickly upon the field officer, who moves to one side, turning as the soldier passes him to challenge him. What follows is a verbal tirade, the soldier using every expletive in his vocabulary to justify why he doesn’t need to move out of the way of anyone. Various attempts at reasoning with the individual fall on deaf ears. The field officer, rank obscured by darkness, does not introduce himself to the soldier, but asks if his behaviour is in line with the Army’s Values and Standards. The soldier gives a farewell “Fuck off”, as he disappears down the track.

The story doesn’t end there. The field officer, having dropped off his kit at the pre-arranged transport, heads back down to the tented cookhouse for breakfast, his Battery Sergeant Major with him having met the field officer and the signaller at the vehicle some 5 minutes earlier. By coincidence, the ‘shoulder barge’ soldier is sat in the tent, tucking into his full English whilst regaling a captivated audience with his recent antics on the path. The field officer walks over to the soldier who, peering up from his plate, asks “Are you looking for me?” “Yes I am, can we have a chat outside please?” responds the field officer. They move outside, visibility still minimal due to the dark winter morning. The following conversation takes place

Field officer:“Your behaviour earlier was totally unacceptable, do you agree?”


Field officer:“So that was appropriate behaviour?”


Field officer:“So my signaller, a private soldier, on his first Divisional exercise, is shoulder barged off the path by you for no reason and that is acceptable?”

Soldier:“Yeah.  It’s not his fucking path is it?”

Field officer:“So you could see him struggling up the path carrying all of his kit and you think it’s appropriate to shoulder barge him.”

Soldier:“You lot are all the fucking same, fucking Gunners.  Why the fuck should I move?”

Field officer:Erm, because it’s the right thing to do?  Do you think that your actions reflect the Values and Standards of the British Army?


Field officer walks away.

The field officer sits down and starts on his breakfast. The BSM asks if the soldier apologised; when he is told that he didn’t, the BSM gets up, finds the soldier and has a word. Two minutes later the soldier enters the tent and approaches the field officer,
“Sir, sorry for my behaviour, I think I may have acted a little hastily. I didn’t realise you were a Major.”
He didn’t realise that the person who had challenged his inappropriate behaviour was a Major. So in other words, this soldier’s behaviour and application of the Values and Standards of the British Army are entirely situational, to be applied only when officers are present. Had the field officer have been a private soldier, the ‘shoulder barge’ soldier would have felt no need to have firstly acted in an appropriate manner, and secondly to have reacted so angrily when challenged.
The field officer in question was me. The soldier? A Warrant Officer from a cap badge that will remain anonymous. That’s right – a Warrant Officer. One rank from reaching the pinnacle of the soldier rank structure. Second only to his RSM in seniority. Probably 3 to 4 years away from taking his Late Entry commission, which many assume is a foregone conclusion given the demand for LE officers to fill both DE and LE officer roles across the Army.

Whilst this was one isolated incident at the end of an intense exercise, I consider it to be indicative of a wider issue across the Army. Individuals with suspect character have been promoted too quickly and too far over the last 10 years. Inevitably, this is due to several factors, not least the operational churn of enduring operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that required the chain of command to promote at risk in order to meet operational ORBATs. Many inspirational young NCOs, exhausted from tour after tour, left the Army allowing the middle and bottom thirds to promote ahead of and in many cases beyond their ability. Commanding Officers, petrified of soldiers signing off and what it may or may not infer about their ability to command, have routinely offered the moon on a stick to disillusioned soldiers. The promotion carrot has been all too often waved in front of mediocre soldiers, able to hold their Regiments to ransom with threats to sign off.
But the incident involving the ‘shoulder barge’ soldier is just a one off, a rarity surely? Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs are the engine room of any Regiment or Battalion, aren’t they? They are the guardians of the Values and Standards of the British Army, the moral compass that guides a Regiment? They should be; but unfortunately such behaviours and abandonment of the Army’s Values and Standards are occurring with ever more frequency, if recent incidents at Regimental Duty are anything to go by: drink driving, violent disorder following Mess functions, adultery, drug taking, JPA fraud and physical assaults on young soldiers.

This is not to say that the WOs’ and Sgts’ Mess is a haven for soldiers unable to live by the Army’s Values and Standards. Far from it; 95% of its members are there on merit. They care passionately for their soldiers and officers, and go above and beyond day in, day out, on operations, exercise and in barracks. The problem is that it takes only 5% to destroy the name of the exemplary 95% and to damage Fighting Power irreparably. This 5% are also the same individuals who routinely excuse themselves from sub unit and Regimental PT…’I’ve got too much on Boss’, or choose not to press their uniform anymore…’You don’t iron PCS’, and talk to their soldiers in the most disrespectful manner…’I didn’t hurt me Sir’. They are the same 5% who sit impatiently through the yearly refresher on Values and Standards, as part of MATT 6, struggling to recall the Values and having not the first idea of the Standards.

Their negative impact on Fighting Power is far greater than their numbers would suggest; Junior NCOs and private soldiers witness this behaviour. It strengthens the view that this approach is no bar to promotion, that the Values and Standards of the British Army are optional, to be applied infrequently in order to achieve a desired effect, usually for personal advancement. It serves to undermine the positive culture that the 95% work to inculcate across the Regiment or Battalion, who live by and practice the Army Sergeant Major’s ‘Green Lines.’(1)
And here’s the thing. The 5%, if they were to read this opinion piece, would likely point to a lack of example set by the officers and a frantic workload that they can’t cope with. They would point to other Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs who are far worse examples, or that they are being harshly judged. All tell-tale signs of individuals with an external locus of control (ie. it’s anyone else’s fault but theirs). The 95%, who have an internal locus of control will interrogate their own behaviours and question whether they could have done more to grip unacceptable behaviour in barracks, on exercise and operations.
But all is not lost. There is a mechanism to reverse this worrying trend – and it starts with a concerted effort to invest in our Junior NCOs. We must be under no illusion that our Junior NCOs are the vital ground, the cohort critical to the future success of the British Army as it continues a period of painful re-adjustment, against the well-publicised fiscal constraints that will endure well into the next decade.

The steps to ensure our Junior NCOs rise to the challenge are not, you will be relieved to read, anything unachievable or impractical. They simply acknowledge the requirement to go back to ‘first principles’, starting with the inculcation of a values based approach to leadership amongst our young leaders. The Army’s Values offer the perfect handrail to do this; they just need to be part of routine sub unit business, as opposed to some abstract words that are regurgitated on a yearly basis by a disinterested MATT 6 instructor reading verbatim from a PowerPoint slide pack. Like PT, map reading and skill at arms, the study, discussion and practical application of the Army’s Values and Standards must be little and often.
This firm base will facilitate the generation of a positive environment within a Regiment or Battalion, an environment where the 5% are exposed for being the poor leaders that they are. In concert with the little and often approach to Values and Standards, the 95% of Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs will have to speak up. After all, the standard that you walk past is the standard that you accept. Regiments must become thoroughly uncomfortable places for the 5% to fester, unless they are prepared to engage in an appropriate reset of character.

With our Junior NCOs living the Values and Standards, and the 5% either rooted out or reformed, our private soldiers will see what good looks like. They will have a clear and unequivocal example of what is appropriate behaviour in the British Army, and how ‘good’ is rewarded through personal and collective advancement.
There is another vital role for the 95% of Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs. They should seek to develop the next leaders through a considered mentorship programme. Whilst many Senior NCOs upwards are already engaged in this practice, a more formalised ‘mentorship programme’ should be established. This would involve Junior NCOs selecting a mentor from the Warrant Officers’ and Sergeants’ Mess. This mentoring relationship could, depending on the utility, persist for some time and even endure when individuals are posted to different units. This initiative could also extend to the more junior soldiers. Having had an initial period of time to settle in to Regimental Duty, a private soldier could elect to receive mentoring from a Junior NCO.

The British Army’s strategic edge over its adversaries has always rested on the strength of its soldiers and officers. With the Chief of the General Staff acknowledging in his recent RUSI speech that the Army will continue to carry significant risk due to capability gaps, it seems more important than ever that if the Army is to retain its status as a credible fighting force it must drive up standards amongst its people. With further pressure to reduce numbers, the Army can ill afford to have 5% of its Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs underperforming and setting a poor example to younger soldiers.
The next instalment will focus on the Army’s officers.



The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to hi@wavellroom.com

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